Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: Venus in Fur/Goodman Theatre

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Amanda Drinkall and Rufus Collins/Photo: Liz Lauren

Amanda Drinkall and Rufus Collins/Photo: Liz Lauren

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Playwright David Ives has made his reputation with smart translation-adaptations of classic French works, most recently his retooling of Moliere’s “The Misanthrope” as “The School For Lies,” which played at Chicago Shakespeare Theater in 2012. That one of the two characters in his latest work, Thomas, is adapting Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s scandalous mid-nineteenth-century novel, “Venus in Furs,” and goes to great lengths to clarify, in conversations with the other character, Vanda, the difference between author and adaptor, which eventually raises questions about why did Thomas (and by extension Ives?), in fact, choose this particular novel—a work that literally gave masochism its name—makes the authorship here all the more interesting. 

But you don’t need to know any of this to enjoy the production at the Goodman Theatre. A clever twist on the old play within a play, this brisk and entertaining two-hander manages to pack complexity of structure and big ideas into ninety-seven uninterrupted minutes. A seemingly clueless ditz of a young actress shows up insanely late to audition for a low-budget production of a new play based on a Victorian erotic novella, “Venus in Furs.” Unrelenting, she convinces the adaptor, the only person left in the rehearsal room from a day of unproductive auditions, to read with her. Like any good actor, she transforms with a script in her hands, in this case into a sophisticated and eloquent seductress and, before long, the characters on stage are becoming the characters on the page, as “real life” in the rehearsal room merges into the imagined life of the play.

This might be Ives’ most accomplished work yet: in adapting “Venus in Furs” this way, as an interactive audition, the playwright crafts an explicit and layered dialogue on the work’s message. Is the novella a nuanced reading of a very complex romantic relationship? Or is the masochist played by Thomas just a misogynist, hiding behind sexual deviancy as a cloak for a traditional male domination story? Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Buzzer/Goodman Theatre

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Eric Lynch/Photo: Liz Lauren

Eric Lynch/Photo: Liz Lauren

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At its best, theater uses its characters and their stories as vessels for big ideas, for provocations that make audiences think about new concepts, or to consider old notions in new ways. And, at its best, it does so organically, with characters and a narrative on its own so compelling that the ideas sort of sneak up on the audience. Very few plays reach such ambitious heights, though, and it’s not at all unusual for the narrative to take a back seat to the ideas the playwright’s eager to discuss. 

This is the case with “Buzzer,” now at the Goodman. Jackson is a young black man (played effectively by Eric Lynch) who escaped the rough New York ghetto of his youth to go to prep school and Harvard and now is a prosperous lawyer moving back to his old neighborhood, for no other reason than real estate, to be an unabashed force for and benefactor of gentrification. With him comes his attractive white girlfriend Suzy (Lee Stark, suitably earnest) and his best friend Don (a lively Shane Kenyon), a white rich kid who’s lived his adult life to date in a spiral of addiction and rehab. Not surprisingly, complications arise both externally, when Suzy experiences a fear-tinged discomfort over a daily gauntlet of catcalls from a group of neighborhood guys hanging out near their apartment, and internally, where the seemingly equal love Jackson holds for Suzy and for Don strives for an unrealistic equilibrium. Director Jessica Thebus drives home Jackson’s dilemma by at times arranging the actors in a neat (love) triangle on a stage set with audiences on all four sides, designed by Walt Spangler as a sort of Ikea model apartment amidst the graffiti-tagged street signs of a neighborhood still in the early phase of its gentrification. That the characters never seem fully real, more archetypes than human beings, is the central fault of this production. But the concerns they exist to stir up, though not new, remain urgently relevant in a culture that still seems to think it’s understandable to kill a young black man for wearing a hoodie or for playing loud music obnoxiously.  Read the rest of this entry »

The Players 2014: The Fifty People Who Really Perform in Chicago

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In the foreground, Mike Nussbaum. Continuing in a clockwise circle, Nathan Allen, Charles Newell, Autumn Eckman and Nick Pupillo, Rae Gray and Usman Ally, Alejandro Cerrudo, Ann Filmer, Michael Mahler, Michael Halberstam, Dave Pasquesi, Ayako Kato. In the background, T.J. Jagodowski.

Once was the time, when it came to performing arts, that Chicago was a great place to come from. But thanks to the constant upward trajectory of our community, Chicago is now a great place to come from AND to return to. Every year we see more and more evidence of this, whether it’s the regular homecomings of the likes of Michael Shannon and David Cromer, the Chicago reorientation of international stars like Renee Fleming and Riccardo Muti or the burgeoning national reputations of Tracy Letts and Alejandro Cerrudo, we’ve got quite a perpetual show going on. That means of course, that culling a growing short-list of 300 or so down to the fifty folks who make up this year’s Players, is getting more painful. But we’re crying tears of joy as we do it. What follows are the fifty artists (as opposed to last year’s behind-the-scenesters) in dance, theater, comedy and opera who are making the greatest impact on Chicago stages right now.

Written by Zach Freeman, Brian Hieggelke and Sharon Hoyer, with Mark Roelof Eleveld, Hugh Iglarsh and Robert Eric Shoemaker. Photos by Joe Mazza/Brave Lux

Pictured above: In the foreground, Mike Nussbaum. Continuing in a clockwise circle, Nathan Allen, Charles Newell, Autumn Eckman and Nick Pupillo, Rae Gray and Usman Ally, Alejandro Cerrudo, Ann Filmer, Michael Mahler, Michael Halberstam, Dave Pasquesi, Ayako Kato. In the background, T.J. Jagodowski.

All photos were taken at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago.

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Review: Smokefall/Goodman Theatre

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Katherine Keberlein, Mike Nussbaum, Eric Slater, Guy Massey and Catherine Combs/Photo: Liz Lauren

Katherine Keberlein, Mike Nussbaum, Eric Slater, Guy Massey and Catherine Combs/Photo: Liz Lauren

RECOMMENDED

I kept thinking about the story of my parents’ oft-discussed first meeting—at a dance hall in Fargo, North Dakota sometime at the dawn of the JFK era—as I watched one of the best plays of the year, Noah Haidle’s “Smokefall,” in its world premiere at the Goodman earlier this week. And how, if not for a thousand factors of chance, that meeting had not occurred, or had not gone well, and my world, the world of my wife and children, of my brothers and their families—the life that is everything to me and nothing of consequence to most others—does not exist.

An existential scream baked inside a birthday cake, “Smokefall” forces contemplation of the nature of domestic life, and the meaning of life, through a production that commences with a surreal-tinted realism (telegraphed before the curtain by Kevin Depinet’s slightly off-kilter wonder of a set) and progresses through a slightly too-long shtick-driven duo of fraternal twins inside the womb with a predilection for singing Sondheim and into a second act where time, space and generations overlap and blend together. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Pullman Porter Blues/Goodman Theatre

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Larry Marshall, Tosin Morohunfola and Cleavant Derricks /Photo: Liz Lauren

Larry Marshall, Tosin Morohunfola and Cleavant Derricks/Photo: Liz Lauren

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Director Chuck Smith has taken Cheryl L West’s play about three generations of African-American porters working on a luxury Pullman train bound from Chicago to New Orleans on June 22, 1937—the night that Joe Louis knocked out James Braddock at Comiskey Park and became heavyweight champion of the world and hero to Black America—and crafted an engaging entertainment with a little bit of history, a fair bit of bite, a dose of predictability and a ton of heart and soul.

Grandfather Monroe Sykes (the delightful Larry Marshall) has helped grandson Cephas (the earnest Tosin Morohunfola)—AWOL from his classes at the University of Chicago, where he was the family hope to become a doctor—get a summer porter gig on the Panama Limited Pullman Train, not knowing that his son and the boy’s father, Sylvester Sykes (the loving and lovable firebrand Cleavant Derricks), a labor organizer, would also work that run. West’s script draws sharply contrasted characters here—the go-along-to-get-along grandfather not far enough removed from slavery to want to rustle feathers, the son who’s no longer willing to suffer the abuse of a system of institutional and economic racism, and the grandson who’s enjoying the fruits of his forebears labors, but is too young to know whether he’s prepared to buy into their plan for him. Their story together is a moving and authentic intergenerational tale that will connect with audiences of any time and any color. When they sing together in harmony, their moving music says everything about the unity of family even in the face of personal differences. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Teddy Ferrara/Goodman Theatre

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Teddy1RECOMMENDED

A suicide is always a tragedy. And in the hands of various interest groups and media outlets, as agendas are pushed and stories are filtered or distorted, a tragedy can become a travesty.

Inspired by and roughly based on the 2010 suicide of Tyler Clementi, playwright and Pulitzer finalist Christopher Shinn’s latest work, currently receiving its world premiere at the Goodman Theatre, tackles this heavy subject matter with a solid dose of unexpected comedy while attempting (and mostly succeeding) at remaining above polemics and finger-pointing.

Though a few of Shinn’s points feel obvious, under the direction of Evan Cabnet, most are subtle and poignant. Most notably, as the eponymous freshman student Teddy Ferrara, Ryan Heindl arrives on stage socially awkward enough so that when he mutters the line, “yeah, my roommate is kind of weird” it gets a hearty laugh. But this easy laughter at a social misfit should give us pause later as Teddy’s story unfolds further.
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Review: A Christmas Carol/Goodman Theatre

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Larry Yando/Photo: Liz Lauren

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Thirty-five years ago, Goodman Theatre debuted its first production of Charles Dickens’ holiday classic at the suggestion of now-executive director Roche Schulfer, and changed the face of Chicago theater for good. Though that first production was an expensive and risky undertaking, its success became the bedrock for the audience-driven component of financing Chicago theater, as not only did Goodman put it into perpetual repeat, but so too did almost every theater company in town develop their own annual holiday production as a box-office sure thing.

Though those of us who, for personal or professional reasons, see the show many times over might be inclined to obsess over what ultimately minor shifts in staging and casting invariably take place over time, the reality is that Goodman has this one down to a science, especially under the helm of stalwart director Steve Scott. And especially with Larry Yando playing Ebenezer Scrooge, a role that recalls his even-less-redemptive turn as that other theatrical rogue, Roy Cohn, in last year’s production of “Angels in America” at Court. Yando’s mastery of vile is unparalleled, but so too is his transformation into the joyfully benevolent Scrooge here, where he gets to show some chops for physical comedy. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men/Goodman Theatre

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Dael Orlandersmith/Photo: Kevin Berne

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The pressures of masculinity require that its terrors go unspoken; young men and boys often negotiate violent worlds without help or outlet. Solo writer/performer Dael Orlandersmith tells their untold stories with a truthful, unblinking eye. Her stories pack a powerful punch.

It’s a harsh landscape, a planet populated by characters desperate to keep their heads above water. There’s Mike, the child of a prostitute trying to rise above his roots through education; Flaco, whose mentally ill mother sexually abuses him and Ian, a child of a working-class British yob, who struggles with his own violent tendencies. Orlandersmith switches seamlessly between five bleak realities to build to a hopeful climax. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Sweet Bird of Youth/Goodman Theatre

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Diane Lane and Finn Wittrock/Photo: Liz Lauren

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Having directed a brilliant revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire” at Writers’ Theatre a few seasons back—which has also since played the Williamstown Theatre Festival—it was a natural for David Cromer to return to Tennessee Williams. With all the resources of the Goodman Theatre at his disposal, and back in his hometown after successes in New York and Los Angeles as well as a 2010 MacArthur “Genius” grant, Cromer has turned to Williams’ last real success, “Sweet Bird of Youth.” Although Cromer was originally slated to direct the play last year on Broadway, New York’s delay is Chicago’s gain.

Characteristics that have become Cromer hallmarks, including creating a larger-than-life scenic environment (courtesy of James Schuette) are obvious from the moment you enter the theater, as the soft winds of the Deep South are heard and felt and a translucent white curtain gradually reveals an elegant baby-blue-and-white hotel room. A shirtless, at first rather boyish-looking man (Finn Wittrock as Chance Wayne) is lounging in bed and rises to reveal he is wearing solid-white silk pajama bottoms. Soon we discover that hidden amongst his pink sheets is a beautiful female companion in black lingerie (Diane Lane as the Princess Kosmonopolis). As the dark world of this couple is revealed, insidious insight by insight, the juxtaposition of their apparent attractiveness forms an ironic and humorous paradox with what unabashedly despicable people they are. In a brilliant touch, the curtain and wall at times show faint projections of dreamlike images of the past, including our first look at a youthful Heavenly (Kristina Johnson). Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Immediate Family/Goodman Theatre and About Face Theatre

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J. Nicole Brooks and Phillip James Brannon/Photo: Michael Brosilow

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What starts as a rather sitcomy family comedy/drama (complete with John Iacovelli’s appropriately upper-middle class interiors and Ana Kuzmanic’s contemporary costumes) quickly transforms into a much deeper exploration of family, belonging and acceptance. Playwright Paul Oakley Stovall has created a script that is not only relevant to the current political climate but also incredibly entertaining. Read the rest of this entry »